Even though the world’s busiest airport is nestled comfortably at the northern tip of Clayton County, Ga. (no, not in Atlanta or Fulton County), just a short driving distance from the rest of the county, without public transportation the distance for residents without cars created a black whole in the metropolitan Atlanta area the size of Grand Canyon. At least that’s the way many residents — primarily the elderly and students — saw it since they could not access the airport or important destinations in other parts of Clayton or Fulton counties because of the lack of a viable rail system or bus service inside Atlanta’s southern suburban county.

That all changed on Election Night when the residents of Clayton County (which includes the city of Riverdale), overwhelmingly approved a referendum to raise the sales tax one cent in order to subsidize the entry of the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority into the county for the first time in its history. The vote means Clayton’s sales tax will rise from 7 percent to 8 percent, starting in March. The MARTA tax is expected to generate proceeds of about $45 million per year.

Half the money will finance limited bus service starting in March 2015 and full bus service the following year. The other half will be set aside for a future commuter rail or a comparable form of high-capacity service, such as bus rapid transit.

Before, Clayton County residents had its own system, called C-Tran, that plugged residents into the rest of the Atlanta metropolitan region by dropping riders off at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International airport, where MARTA rail and bus service begins for the rest of the metro region. But the Great Recession a few years ago ravaged Clayton County’s finances. C-Train bus service was one of the most significant casualties of the county’s collective belt-tightening.

That’s why voters, politicians and dignitaries inside The Riverdale Town Center, home of Riverdale City Hall, erupted in a joyous noise when residents overwhelmingly voted to return bus service to the south Atlanta metro region. This time, the bus and rail service will be a part of MARTA as is the case in neighboring Fulton and DeKalb Counties. The occasion brought out Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who made the 15-minute trek from City Hall on election night to immerse himself in the festivities

The excitement was amplified as the referendum was approved overwhelmingly by the Clayton County electorate, to the tune of 74 percent. Clayton is the only county connected to Atlanta and Fulton County that did not have some form of public transportation with bus or rail service or both. Elderly people had limited means by which to get to grocery stores, hospitals and churches. Non-driving college students had no way to get to Clayton State University, or any of the plethora of college institutions throughout Atlanta. Many residents who relied on transportation for employment either moved out of the county or lost their jobs. The beleaguered county was hemorrhaging not only residents, but the revenue their taxes provided.

Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO said their involvement began with the National AFL-CIO president’s declaration to be more involved and engaged in the communities in the South. And one of the projects that it decided to work on was the Clayton County transit problem and the referendum.” One, the county needed public transportation. And two, it was an opportunity to bring good jobs to the community, good paying union jobs. And three, we wanted to solidify and go deeper with the community on this and a number of projects,” explained Flemming.

In July, Clayton County Commissioners approved putting the 1 percent sales tax on the ballot, but only after a heated battle. Originally, Clayton County Commissioners approved a half-cent sales tax to just bring bus service to the area, but MARTA told them the deal was a full penny for full service, essentially it was all or nothing.

The planned new transportation service is contingent though on MARTA’s ability to negotiate a deal to use the existing Norfolk Southern tracks to extend train service to Clayton County. The most immediate impact will be in the restoration of bus service to Clayton County. MARTA will be begin to collect a one cent sales tax in March 2014, and will begin to roll out limited service at around the same time. Complete service is expected by July 2016.

MARTA estimates it could be five to seven years before trains start running through Clayton County. Until then, the revenue generated by the one-cent sales tax estimated to be roughly $24 million annually will be set aside for future rail service.

Rev. Al Sharpton visited the county on Tuesday, Nov. 11 to show his support for MARTA’s potential expansion. Clayton County currently has no public transit service.

The county will begin collecting the new tax for transportation in March 2015 and will continue to collect it for the next 30 years. Limited bus service will also begin in March for Clayton County, with complete MARTA bus service expected by July 2016. Rail service will come later, with half the tax money collected being held in an escrow account until a later date.

In 2012, Atlanta made national news for rejecting a multi-year, multi-billion dollar transportation referendum. Even with the region’s notorious congestion and spotty transit service, a mixture of political opposition prevented transportation officials from moving forward.

During a survey, she said, 93 percent of the riders supported “paying a higher rate” to keep C-Tran running.

Reginald Davis, executive board, Amalgamated Transit Union: “There were a lot of eyes and ears on this particular campaign and outcome … this is an environmental issue. If you look on the freeway, there’s only one driver in each car. So the emissions is killing us. If were to use more rail and bus service that would reduce emission gases, and it would reduce the commute time back and forth to work,” said Reginald Davis, executive board member of the Amalgamated Transit Union

Ari Gabre, exucitve vice present, AFL-CIO said that in a recent survey, 93 percent of public transportation riders supported paying a higher rate to develop C-Tran. ” It covers college students who can’t get to school. It covers health care for people who have no way to get to the hospital. And there are people who need to check in with their probation and parole officers. And because they could not get to the officer, they violated their parole. Examples of our union members who work at the airport in the concession stands who miss that last train out of the airport and they have to end up sleeping in the airport overnight,” said Gabre.

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